8 simple steps to writing an effective design brief

Written by Finn Taylor on 13th July 2017

(Last updated 5th July 2023)

Having been on the receiving end of many design briefs, we know how tempting it is to dismiss their value, as they are all too often flawed, falling into a series of meaningless statements and rules. A well-written design brief, on the other hand, is such a useful tool for the designer, that its value must not be underestimated.

At this point it is worth taking stock of the scope of the task and how much detail is needed in the brief - if you can state the requirements plainly and reference your brand guidelines, then life is simple. If, however, you find yourself in the position of having a brand manual that does not have enough definition for the job (i.e. it only provides basic rules/logo/typography/colours/etc) and you do not have the mandate for a brand development project, then a full design brief is probably the only way forward, so read on...

So what are the simple steps to defining a design brief?

1 - Stating the obvious, but you have to start with referencing your brand and identity manual, as this should be the cornerstone of your brand … even if it does not tell the designer everything they need to know. 

2 - Provide examples of how your brand is currently being communicated (brochures, reports, adverts, leaflets etc), with a brief summary of how well these adhere to your brand. This can be used to create a practical do’s and don’ts guide.

3 - Detail what is either misrepresentative or missing from your defined brand….help us understand what is relevant and what is no longer relevant in how you are being portrayed.

4 - Tell us more about your company and how your are positioned:

  • What is your (company / organisation's) story
  • What is your unique selling point (USP)
  • Give us your elevator pitch
  • Why do clients love you
  • What makes you different from your competitors
  • What emotions do you want to evoke
  • What is your mission statement or strapline

We understand that it may be difficult, for example, to define your USP, but do try … it is vital to your marketing.

5 - Tell us about 4 to 6 competitors. This helps us understand what you admire about each one … their strengths, as well as telling us about their weaknesses.

Remember this can be competitors who you compete with directly or other players in your sector who we can learn from….they may be in different leagues (smaller/bigger) but is there something they are doing really well (or badly), that we can learn from?

6 - Define 2 or 3 positioning axis and place your competitors with these. You can then position where you currently exist and where you would like to be.

Some useful tangents that you can adapt:

  • Traditional vs. Modern 
  • Steady as she goes vs. High growth
  • Vibrant vs. Restrained
  • Marketing vs. Corporate Comms
  • Calm vs. Energetic
  • Friendly vs. Formal
  • Photographic vs. Illustrative
  • Niche vs. Mass market
  • Minimal vs. Busy
  • Expensive vs. Low Cost

Obviously some of these are similar and overlap. You will need to define an appropriate group for you and your marketplace.

Whilst simplistic, these axis can be really useful in establishing competitor space(s), as you can map yourself and competitors, visually seeing spaces and opportunities. It is also worth mapping where you are currently positioned vs where you want to be, helping you understand the transition.

(Note: if you end up positioning yourself in the middle of the different axis, then you risk becoming vanilla. In this situation you may need to try alternative tangents on the axis so that you have something with definition.

7 - Define a number of customer personas and stories for how each of these interact with you, helping to personalise the desired relationship / interaction. 

Example - Interim Recruitment:

‘Joe works in HR in a government department – he is responsible for recruiting new staff for the department.

Joe was in a difficult spot – the department was undergoing yet another reorganisation, and whilst cuts were made left, right and centre, he was expected to find some senior people to help reorganise the department.

Unfortunately, most senior recruitment firms would not touch this assignment with a barge pole, as they know that more change is coming. Whilst a team of consultants could do the job, the new management team were clear they do not want consultants.

Being able to provide a team of experienced interim managers fitted the bill perfectly.

Joe really appreciated your approach to engaging with him – the briefing process was thorough and he really felt you took the time to understand him. From this point, the fact you took everything off his plate meant that he could get on with other tasks and he felt comfortable that – whilst you manage the entire sourcing process – he still had final control over the process…he really got the best of both worlds'.

Hopefully this imaginary example of Joe gives you an idea of what a persona/story would look like. By defining a number of persona and setting up real world examples of how they would interact with you including some basic emotional context, we start to get a more tangible feel for how your brand might need to manifest and what is actually important to the end customer.

8 - Brief us on the tasks / undertaking ensuring we understand the core driver behind the brief and the desired outcomes. 

To summarise

Having outlined these 8 steps, you have at least provided your agency with a set of tools they can then use to start their design process, without stepping into rebrand territory!

This article was posted in Design by Finn Taylor